Many of us know that September is suicide awareness month. Suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death among all age groups in the United States and the second leading cause of death among college students age 25-34. Despite growing efforts to reduce the number of suicides, the epidemic continues to grow claiming more lives than ever before. That means roughly 123 people are dying daily from suicide in the United States. Internationally, every 40 seconds a life is lost to suicide.
Intermingled inside this death toll we are hearing of pastors who have claimed their own lives and it seems as though the evangelical community doesn’t know exactly how to respond. There has been a sterile buzz phrase that has emerged since the passing of Jarrid Wilson that goes something like, “Sometimes even pastors struggle with suicide.” I would like to amend that phrase to one less politically correct and say that pastors and their families especially struggle with suicidal thoughts and actions.
October is Pastor appreciation month and I think that it’s only fitting for it to fall in the shadow of September where the appreciation for those who shepherd links arms with the awareness brought to those struggling with suicide. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Ministry can be one of the darkest and loneliness places there is and it’s hard to bring any kind of understanding to it because almost every burden that is carried by a pastor or their family comes under the weight of confidentiality. It is easy to feel that there is no place to go with the burdens that we drag along behind us.
It has been said that in some lakes and oceans there are places where even the most skilled divers should not explore because the depths go so far downward the darkness becomes impenetrable by light. The blackout is so total that the diver loses all sense of direction and it becomes unclear whether he’s swimming further down toward death or up toward safety. This is the best description that I can think of for what it is like to be one who ministers.
As we think about appreciating our pastors, let’s do it considering the awareness that September brought, and in memory of the lives that have been lost. Ask your pastor how he is, and really mean it. Ask a pastor’s wife if she’s ok and really stop to listen. Ask how you can pray for your pastor’s kids who also live under the burdens that their family wears day in and day out. The burdens don’t go away when the lights of the church are turned off. People don’t stop calling just because they all went home and the building now sets empty. The ministry of the church doesn’t stop just because the doors are locked.
One of the hardest things that we’ve ever heard in ministry came at one of the darkest points when we reached out to a friend who said, “The truth is, most people just don’t care enough about their pastors to even think about what’s going on beyond the Sunday morning experience.” This must change.
In the wake of Pastor Wilson’s suicide, so many major Christian organizations spoke out and offered their condolences. Their perfectly packaged messages were tied up neatly with the national suicide helpline’s number and while this wasn’t necessarily wrong, it broke my heart. I am all in favor of the national suicide hotline, but do we not think that mental health advocates such as Wilson are very familiar with such a number? We don’t need a stranger’s voice on the other end of a hotline. We need people who care enough to offer their personal phone numbers to pastors and friends who are struggling. Offering the number of a hotline communicates one thing, “Get your act together somewhere else so you can come back here and do your job but don’t burden others in the process.”
“I’m sitting on my bed with a pistol in my lap. I can’t do this anymore.”
“Can you please meet me and take my gun because if you don’t I’m afraid I will use it?”
“I’m sitting alone in a dark parking lot. When I get home I think it’s time for me to get brave and get out of all this.”
“My doctor upped my medication because I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.”
“Is it so wrong to just want to be home?”
“Please pray I don’t wake up. If God won’t take me home I’m going to have to figure out how to get there.”
These are all calls or conversations that I have personally had with pastors or their wives and this doesn’t even begin to put a dent in the number of conversations that have taken place. This isn’t a topic on which I want to speak out. It’s not even a topic I want to speak to. It’s one that I want to speak out of because I too have walked inside of that deadly darkness. I know what it’s like to beg God not to let you wake up and to be desperately disappointed when you do. I know what it means to think of all the ways life could stop and even to begin to write the final goodbyes.
I suspect that I know these things because God desires me to use the knowledge to give a voice to those who can’t find their words so they reach instead for something lethal. I imagine that I know because someone else desperately needs to know they are not alone. And maybe some of you desperately need a measure of understanding so that you can begin to reach out. Every single one of us needs to know how to save a life!
There is a healthy longing for heaven that we see all through scripture. Paul famously says that for him to live is Christ and to die is gain. This is a healthy longing and understanding of what work on earth and life in heaven are to be and yet when we experience this longing for heaven outside of the community that God intended for us to exist in, the longing becomes more than we can handle and rather than our prize, heaven becomes our escape.
This is where Satan does his best work. He twists our greatest hope into our terminal downfall. He takes scripture and turns it into something that it is not. If we are alone, we so quickly lose our bearings and we no longer have any awareness of whether we are swimming up toward safety or further down toward danger.
Christians, and especially pastors and their families, struggle with suicide. As you appreciate them this month, know the extreme burdens they bear and the attacks they face constantly. Know that while they’re fighting for the lives of others, often they secretly are desperately fighting for their own. Offer them more than a hotline. Offer them your ear, your love and support, and offer them your number.
I’ll be the first to lead the way. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, you can reach me by calling this number 918-510-5635. Pastors and family members, you are not alone! Every single person needs an ally! Let’s bear each other’s burdens so that no one walks alone and let us remember the words that Wilson famously spoke often, “Hope gets the last word!”